ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 37, September 1998


Dating a cottage and saving a windmill

In the second of two articles, Simon Denison reports on the achievements of voluntary archaeology

There are some who say that an individual archaeologist, working alone, is unlikely to make much contribution to answering important historical questions. Those who say so should think again.

One lively debate is over the date of the oldest surviving timber-framed cottage in the country. A few years ago, a survey in the Midlands found a cottage in Mapledurham, Oxfordshire, substantially unaltered, and with original timbers dated 1335. Another had a re-used `cruck' - a curved timber extending from the floor, up the wall, to the roof - dated 1267.

Now, another contender for the title of oldest surviving cottage has been found. For some years, Madge Moran, a retired catering teacher and amateur archaeologist from Shrewsbury, has been dating timber-framed buildings in Shropshire. A cottage in the village of Upton Magna has been found with original earthfast crucks dated 1269.

With grants from various sources, including £500 from the CBA's challenge fund, Mrs Moran has dated through dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) over 100 buildings in Shropshire, shedding light on a range of architectural questions. King-post roofs, for example, have been found to date from 1287-1431 - earlier than many elsewhere in the country, which tend to be 15th century.

Base crucks, which start at ground level and end at collar-beam level allowing the building to have any type of roof, are dated 1302-1408. The work suggests they were favoured by high-status houses as they could be set further apart than normal crucks, creating more space downstairs.

At about £450 for each date, a dendro project can be expensive. Fieldwalking, by contrast, costs virtually nothing, and can also shed light on important local and national questions. Stephen Allen, who works in a village garage in Berkshire, has spent lunch-breaks and weekends for seven years pacing up and down the fields of the Kennet Valley south-west of Reading, looking for surface finds. By covering 88 fields and wooded areas, many of them several times, he has found 14 new sites, and added them to the Sites and Monuments Record. They range fromMeso-lithic knapping areas and `activity' (possibly butchery) sites, through to Roman, Saxon and medieval pottery concentrations.

Mr Allen, who is self-taught in archaeology, says he hopes to prove the contribution fieldwalking can make to finding sites, although `only if it is done in a concentrated way'. The key to success, he says, is repeated return visits - involving a heavy commitment of time not possible for many professionals. His £300 grant from the CBA's challenge fund paid for a computer to log the survey's results.

It is sometimes forgotten that excavations are also possible on a low budget. For three years the Solihull Archaeology Group have uncovered part of old Knowle Hall near Solihull in Warwickshire, working on Sundays during the summer months. The 17th century house was demolished in 1840, and records show that a moated house existed in 1404. The purpose of the dig, according to its director, Lance Smith, is to establish whether the house remained on the same site, and to produce evidence of any intermediate phases.

With the discovery of a timber revet-ment at a low stratigraphic level, the former existence of a moat seems likely. A later surface over the filled-in moat, but below the latest floor level, suggests an intermediate phase, thought to be Elizabethan. The group's £500 from the CBA fund has paid for tools, paper, and `other necessities' - a small price for an important contribution to local history.

To the north, in Stafford, a windmill stands derelict in the centre of the town. In 1886, its machinery was removed, and the sails taken down. For a few decades it was used as a warehouse. Now owned by the town council, its future looked bleak.

However, some years ago the mill caught the eye of National Trust archaeologist Jeremy Milln and Michael Dudley, a retired local government childcare-services officer, who had the idea of turning it into a museum of local industry.

The council allowed them to go ahead, but first they had to conduct a full archae-ological survey. Since then, according to Mr Dudley, three people - calling themselves the Friends of Broad Eye Windmill - have worked `round the clock for two years', under Mr Milln's supervision, producing scale drawings and a full photo-graphic record, backed up by a documentary history of the mill. The building, originally seven stories high, was found to contain decorated timber and stonework from the town's Elizabethan shire hall, and some timbers from the reign of Henry VIII.

Given the voluntary nature of the project, the town council has been surprisingly demanding, requiring five copies of every record and drawing (the county council and local library want two further copies), and a triple photographic record in black-and-white negative, colour negative, and colour slide. According to Mr Dudley, the council has also demanded that the Friends carry out routine maintenance - on the council's own building. Over two years, the Friends have spent over £1,500. A CBA grant of £400 has helped.

The project might have folded under such demands, but it struggles on - a remarkable testament to the determination of some people to care, against the odds, for their local historic environment.

The CBA's challenge fund budget is provided by English Heritage, Historic Scotland, and the Council for Scottish Archaeology

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1998